They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
But you can. Easily. Without even meaning to sometimes. I have the very literal proof. My geriatric labrador, jake, is, mainly, a well behaved creature. For thirteen and a half years he has had the same food every day. He rarely gets fed treats from the table or has doggy treats outside of his meals. Therefore, unlike many pets, he was never overweight and rarely showed too much interest in our food (well – for a labrador).
Sadly he has been off his food recently. So we have been trying to tempt him with all sorts of tidbits. Suddenly he get’s toast crusts, plates of vegetables, scrambled eggs, cheese – anything to stop his falling weight. And within the space of a few weeks he now ‘begs’ at the table at every meal. He pesters for scraps whatever it is we are eating. And of course we indulge him because, well to be honest we all know where this has to end.
I did wonder what would happen if the vet suddenly found the miracle cure for arthritis, liver disease, and ageing in dogs. How long would it take to re-establish the ‘no scrounging’ behaviour? I suspect that given the amount of reinforcement he has had recently (weetabix, followed by toast crusts and milky tea for breakfast today instead of dried dog food for example) it might be quite a task.
Reflecting on this there are a number of lessons:
- Old dogs readily learn – so what’s my excuse?
- It’s easy to create new patterns of behaviour – so be very careful with the behaviours you reinforce, or even just tolerate.
- And, of course, there’s no harm in indulging an old dog. life really is too short.